Many senior executives that I have worked with are fascinated by top-level sports stars – perhaps it has something to do with their own secret childhood dreams of becoming star athletes. Companies pay large amounts of money to listen to inspirational talks by sports legends. But what can we learn from them? Do their stories provide anything more than an opportunity to rub shoulders with names that will impress friends? How can listening to sports stars change what executives do when they return to their desks?

There are many striking parallels between sports at the highest level and business success. Fierce competition, winning by sometimes the smallest of margins, achieving goals and targets, establishing long and short-term strategies and tactics, hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure and setbacks – these are all key challenges in both worlds. Success in both sports and business alike relies on the ability to continually move your performance to the next level. What you achieve this year won’t be good enough next year.

I recently took part in a pro/am golf tournament where a professional golfer said something interesting: top athletes are not born, but made. Of course there has to be some inborn natural ability, in terms of coordination, flexibility, and physical and psychological capacity. These traits are similar to those required of successful senior leaders who need to be able to both strategise and relate to people. But the real key to sustained excellence for both elite sports stars and business leaders is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in their heads. Rather, it is the development of mental toughness and the ability to know how important it is to live to fight another day.

The ability to thrive under almost inhuman pressure is perhaps the most defining characteristic of a sportsperson. They excel when the heat is turned up. They are able to stay focused on the things that really matter in the face of many potential distractions. They are able to forget what happened yesterday and bounce back from setbacks. And, most crucially, they are able to maintain their belief in themselves in the most trying circumstances.

Making it to the top in the competitive world of professional sports is the result of careful planning, and setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. And if it is hard reaching the top, that’s nothing compared to what it takes to stay there. The expectations are enormous, and athletes are likely to become the target and benchmark for all their competitors. It’s a great place to be, but it also comes with potential vulnerability and loneliness if things go wrong. Does any of this sound familiar in your world?

I believe there are too many similarities and parallels between sports and business to ignore the lessons we can draw from our counterparts in the sports world. Recognising them can help drive you and your organisation to achievements and successes that others only dream about.

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